Author: Marie-Michèle Ricard, psychoeducator, psychotherapist, teacher
Beyond being a place of learning, school is a true living environment that has a strong influence on teens’ development. As a teacher, you can play an important role in the mental health of your young students.
Did you know that weight is the number one source of bullying in schools?
Nine out of ten teens say that they have witnessed weight-related bullying1
Bullying has many negative consequences, not only for the person targeted and for witnesses, but also for the person who perpetrates it. Here is some advice to help you better understand appearance-related bullying, its impact on body image and the importance of combatting this behaviour with your students.
What is appearance-related bullying and stigmatization?
Bullying and stigmatization refer to situations in which a young person is singled out and subjected to comments and taunts for physical characteristics that make them different from their peers. Even though all young people may experience this stigmatization, those who are overweight are more frequent targets of this behaviour.
Closely related to self-esteem, a good body image is essential for young people in order to have a healthy relationship with their body and with food throughout their lives.
The consequences of stigmatization and bullying include:
- increased body dissatisfaction, which can lead to dangerous eating control behaviours;
- reduced self-esteem, notably by having a negative self-perception due to other people’s comments;
- symptoms of depression and anxiety;
- social isolation and withdrawal. Some teens may therefore have more trouble talking about their experiences and speaking out against stigma.
That’s why it’s important to encourage your students to report incidents of bullying that they experience or witness. This will also allow your school to implement the government-issued guidelines to follow in such a situation.
Take action by promoting a positive body image
To reduce stigmatization and bullying and promote body diversity, you can:
- use posters and organize activities that highlight body diversity;
- refrain from weighing students or measuring their body fat in class. In fact, only health professionals with very specific objectives should use tools for this purpose;
- offer a wide variety of physical activities so that each student can have fun while being active and discovering what their body is able to do;
- raise student’s awareness of the importance of adopting a healthy lifestyle by offering activities or workshops on:
-diet (a cooking course, sharing recipes, information on intuitive eating, the danger of diets, eating with mindfulness, etc.),
-physical activity (setting up sports groups and individual sports courses; body mindfulness, etc.),
-emotional management and self-esteem.
Become a role model for your students
As a teacher or member of the school staff, you can have a significant influence on young people through your daily actions. You can set an example by:
- engaging in self-reflection to develop a positive body image and displaying it proudly;
- making sure that you never make comments about a person’s weight or appearance;
- intervening quickly and firmly when bullying occurs;
- promoting your students’ self-esteem by building on their skills, abilities and strengths.
 Association pour la santé publique du Québec, 2014.